Tag Archives: ross douthat

Sweet, Sweet Decadence

1 Apr

A coronavirus outbreak seems an appropriate time to read a book about the fate of the human race, and so I dove right in with the latest from Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ lonely religious conservative opinion columnist. The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success is peak Douthat: a widely roving history of late modernity and its seeming stasis, one that touches on a dozen themes that this blog has also featured over the years because his concerns tend to nibble at me as well, to greater and lesser degrees.

Douthat’s strength as a social commentator is his refusal to accept easy explanations. He makes good cases for how a variety of factors can come together, and he is often among the most original analysts of contemporary American life. Agree or disagree, he can pull out unexpected theories while at the same time resisting the temptation to claim he’s found the answer to everything. He can imagine a variety of different outcomes and explain, succinctly, why each of them might be true. This new book follows in the same tradition as it pulls together all of the possible causes of decadence and explains that decadence may in fact be stable, and then imagines every possible way out of this stable decadence, from environmental catastrophe to the socialist international to a religious revival to aliens, and imagines how they can all work together in feedback loops that reinforce each other. (Well, except maybe for the aliens.)

Jacques Barzun, a French-American historian, supplies Douthat’s definition of decadence:

All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

Douthat is also careful to acknowledge that this version of decadence gets a lot right. Modern society is rich, stable, and has eliminated a lot of past prejudices. Despite the seeming political unrest of Trump era America, most of the violence is rhetorical; when someone actually did die in Charlottesville, the right-wing marches did not continue to surge but instead mostly retreated back to a world of online cosplay. The appetite for actual confrontation is low.

But, then, it also features stagnant income growth, lurching political institutions, and general ennui. It offers potential ecological ruin, though we will likely muddle through in ways that are problematic for poor people at lower lines of latitude but bearable for affluent Westerners. Aside from the world of tech, which Douthat convincingly skewers for its minimal meaningful progress and lack of profitability outside of communication platforms and Amazon, human technological innovation is flatlining. Even popular culture is stuck in an endless loop of Star Wars and comic book movie reboots, and now we’re trapped in an algorithmic death spiral in which few unique things can break out into the mainstream.

More worryingly, The Decadent Society shows how the cultural arbiters of an aging society lock in to place attitudes of risk reduction and dull, safe choices in place of youthful dynamism. Here, Douthat makes his most interesting critiques of liberal society: we’re not reproducing much, we’re having less sex, and we’re giving up on shaping our own future. Workforce participation has declined, and a large swath of the population is now more interested in self-medicating through drugs and video games, with the most extreme cases lurching toward deaths of despair. Porn has not driven young men to pursue elaborate sexual feats, but desensitized them to feeling. Our dystopia comes to resemble Brave New World, perhaps not as clean in its horrors but amounting to the same end: numbed to old life-giving forces and subjected to the soft totalitarianism of norm enforcement by a privacy-free online world. What fun.

Douthat’s other useful point is that decadence can be a very stable state of affairs, even if certain moralistic narratives would prefer to predict its imminent demise. Rome endured for 400 years between Nero and the Visigoth sack, and Douthat sees no reason the American empire can’t lurch along for a similar period of time, dull and uncreative but still the clear colossus bestride the world. Our world is neither on the march toward a liberal dream nor (pandemic horrors aside) headed toward the demise prophesied conservative prophets of woe. It plods along, its most obvious alternatives fundamentally flawed, and some anti-decadent responses to this era run the risk of being very bloody or unequal or just subject to a lot of unintended consequences. Perhaps we should just carry on, elect Joe Biden, and keep trying to make people’s lives marginally better.

Douthat rambles on a tour of geopolitics in the book but gives some valuable international context to what is unique, or mostly not unique, about the American condition. He necessarily oversimplifies but points at some trends that will no doubt shape the next century, from the effects of mass immigration on Europe to the African population boom to the question of whether China is an authoritarian, and perhaps eugenicist, threat to the world order or an aging, poor society with a rickety economy propped up by a corrupt regime desperately trying to put on a good face. Japan, for Douthat, is the canary in the coal mine, a step ahead in reaching flat economic growth and political gridlock and weird, tech-abetted sexual fantasylands instead of the real thing. (It has also made some progress in reversing some of these trends under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in recent years, though his marginal success shows the limits in how far a decadent society can move even with skilled leadership.) By and large, the world is converging on its decadent destiny, no matter where we come from or what we believe in our politics or our faith.

The Decadent Society became rather, well, decadent as it went along. Part of the trouble comes from the inherent challenge in trying to predict the future, especially in a broad and yet merely 240-page book that pays lip service to all answers rather than making a concerted case for a handful. The diagnosis is convincing, but the tale of what comes next is so sweeping and eager to check every possible box that I don’t feel any more enlightened as to what may come next. Symbolically, I enjoy Douthat’s riff on the closing of the frontier with the end of the Apollo missions, but as one with a weak interest in science fiction, I don’t buy that shift as a source of existential dread for any but a narrow, nerdy subset of society. There is no shortage of earthly frontiers available to us, if we choose to pursue them; the societal upheaval of the 1960s may well have ushered in some decadence, but they were baked into the cake long before the U.S. began to ratchet down its space program.

I’ve been fumbling over the end of this review for a week now, so I might as well lay out my writer’s block for the world to see. One false start explored Douthat’s religious aspirations for a non-catastrophic escape from decadence, a conservative Catholic’s probably-not-wrong view that a concerted movement will take some surge of faith, in some unknown form, to give enough lives added meaning to flip the script. I don’t have good answers here, but the secular world’s general inability to grapple with that need for myth and wonder at the core of the human psyche is one of its great analytical failures. Another ending took the opposite tack and riffed on Joan Didion, who I’ve read extensively in recent weeks. She gets a passing mention in The Decadent Society as an exemplar of how stuck our culture is, as her 1960s prose still seems strikingly contemporary. Maybe Didion and her generation set a high bar for us in their incredible detachment, and there’s no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants as we reach for the stars.

In a way, I think both are right: flawed as a decadent society may be, anything that breaks through its comforts should have to answer all those droll and rationalist critiques, should have to inspire a deeper sense of faith and mission. You want an Apollo-level mission, Ross? Well, there it is, right there in front of you. Go a bit further, take that argument you make for twinning faith and reason and beef it up into something serious. Make us believe.

Some Decade-Closing Journalism

30 Dec

As I took a pause amid my usual year-end chaos, I decided to pass along some decade-ending reading. We’ll start with Ross Douthat at the New York Times, who put a pretty good bow on the 2010s as the decade of disillusionment and assesses the disconnect between the widespread political sense that everything is in decline and the relative boringness of world events over the past decade. I find it a compelling take on the American moment, and also made me think of a few pieces I’ve read on how most interpretations of late 20th century history can track directly on to baby boomers’ life stages. Much the same could be said about Douthat’s chronology of decades and the lives of millennials, as this soon-to-be 30-year-old can attest. The 90s were the era of optimism and childhood bliss of the post-Cold War world and unquestioned American supremacy; the aughts an era of teenage troubles that we thought we could overcome through battle and righteous angst and a political hero; and the 2010s were a decade of decadence, a steady appreciation of the challenges we face and resignation to twentysomething life. What will the 20s bring us, other than an increased state of Torschlusspanik?

(The Germans really do have a word for everything.)

In a more entertaining though still illuminating retrospective, the Times’ Upshot blog provides pictures of how American cities transformed over the decade, as exurban growth began anew, inner cities revitalized themselves, a logistics economy exploded, transit developments emerged, and cities grappled with natural disasters.

Sticking with the urban planning theme, Celebration, Florida, was to be the New Urbanist paradise when Disney developed it in the mid-90s to fulfill an ages-old dream of a city of the future. So much for that, Tarpley Hitt tells us. The culprit here seems less the urban planning and more a vulture capitalist, but there’s trouble in paradise, and that piece somehow fits nicely with the last two.

On a more upbeat note about cities and wisdom from the past, I’ll grab this Reuters story about Teotihuacan, the great pre-Aztec ruins north of Mexico City that I visited in the first year of this decade. In addition to building some pretty big pyramids, new archaeological evidence is showing us that the people of Teotihuacan built the most egalitarian pre-modern society by a long shot. What secrets might we learn from this city that was so great that the then-nomadic Aztecs, when they found it centuries after its demise, assumed it could only have been built by gods?

And finally, to end it all on a lighter note: I haven’t included much in the way of sports journalism in this feature to date; I don’t know why, because there is a lot of incredible sports journalism, and I read a lot of it. This Yankee fan will restrain his urge to rub in his glee over the Gerrit Cole signing (oops, too late) and instead hype the bandwagon he’s climbed aboard for the college football playoffs: the Louisiana State University Tigers. They toppled the Alabama dynasty in the Southeastern Conference. Their all-American boy demigod of a quarterback, Joe Burrow, turned his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech into a teary, off-the-cuff riff on the poverty in his hometown of Athens, Ohio. Their head coach and owner of the coolest voice in sports, Ed Orgeron, most likely swung a gubernatorial election with his endorsement of a rare Deep South Democrat; this marriage of sport and state is, apparently, something of a tradition in Louisiana politics. The ESPN 30-for-30 will write itself if they can finish off Clemson in a week and a half. Geaux Tigers.

Good Writing, 12/4/19

4 Dec

In my continued ongoing efforts to collect good thinkpieces and also keep this blog somewhat alive, here’s another collection of interesting reading:

First, in the New Yorker, M.R. O’Connor tells the tale of “dirt road America,” an effort by a man named Sam Correro to map dirt road routes across the country. His project, decades in the making, invites travelers to slow down and drive slowly, to explore the forgotten corners and backcountry secrets of a vast, sprawling country. His meticulous hand-made maps guide curious souls on a very different kind of American road trip.

Sticking with the travel theme, whatever one may think of Roger Cohen’s politics, there’s little doubt he is the finest prose stylist on the New York Times opinion page, and in this recent offering, he gets himself quite lost on a hike in Spain’s Sierra de Guadarrama, I can only hope that, if I am someday lost and losing hope, I too will start meditating on Hemingway’s short stories as I contemplate mortality. Often the greatest way to escape any ruts in the present is to reflect on the wisdom of someone who’s been in that same place.

Perhaps not coincidentally given an impending milestone birthday, I find myself reading a lot about social pressures that lead to delayed family formation and childbirth. Thanks to Ross Douthat at the Times, I went down this rabbit hole this week with three different articles. Douthat himself wrote from his usual conservative Catholic perspective on how the contemporary left, after a period when it was relatively supportive of the idea of strong families as a social good, has begun to rebel against this concept. As a complement and counterpoint, he also shared a 2016 critique from the left by Nancy Fraser, who talks of how neoliberal capitalism undermines family and community social structures. Douthat also recently tweeted this long, sprawling account titled “The Economics of Boomers” by Byrne Hobart. It’s a wonky economist’s perspective on how the economic history of the past 60 years is strongly tied to different phases of baby boomers’ lives, and how the political economy they’ve created defines the life choices of younger generations. Ok, boomer!

Finally, on a lighter note, northern Minnesota author Aaron Brown tells us exactly what an Iron Ranger is. At my core, I’m really not a cultural Ranger at all: I like urban life and have snobby tastes in reading material and food and drink. But I spend a fair amount of time on the Range these days, and I like hockey and beer and the outdoors, so I can usually slide in comfortably. Brown nails it: culture, in the end, forms the basis of these labels.

Until next time…

Time and a Place: Good Writing, 8/7/19

7 Aug

A return to my good journalism series, which I’ll open with a quote from a Wallace Stegner short story, “Beyond the Glass Mountain,” in which the narrator returns to his college campus years later:

The light over the whole hill was pure, pale, of an exaggerated clarity, as if all the good days of his youth had been distilled down into this one day, and the whole coltish ascendant time when he was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, had been handed back to him briefly, intact and precious. That was the time when there had been more hours in the day, and every hour precious enough so that it could be fooled away. By the time a man got into the high thirties the hours became more frantic and less precious, more carefully hoarded and more fully used, but less loved and less enjoyed.

I’m reading Stegner’s complete short stories now, so this blog may suffer something of a Wally barrage in the coming weeks. As for the journalism, I’ll start with the Literary Review, where Helen Pearson reviews a book called Where Does It All Go? It discusses contemporary time usage, and the trend over time toward this sense Stegner identifies. Humans are now busier, more stressed, and more prone to multitask, right?

Wrong. Aside from some gender roles that have shifted somewhat (but are still far from equal), it hasn’t changed much since Stegner wrote 50 years ago. What have changed are the habits of the highly educated, professionally successful, and general status seekers, who do work a lot more, and are more likely to get featured in articles about how people use their time. Pearson also accurately diagnoses the ways in which people in these circles sometimes use busyness as a form of status, a way to convey that they are important and their time is therefore valuable (and yours is probably less so). It is something I have always hated, and am not fond to find it creeping into my own language at times. It also raises some serious questions about what exactly this class of people is achieving other than higher levels of stress.

So, going forward: I’m not busy. I’m just doing what I do.

Speaking of those busy urban elites, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic takes a look at the rebirth of many large American cities and finds one group of people conspicuous in its absence: children. Cities have become playgrounds for urban professionals, and market forces and public policy have made it harder and harder for people with families to build a happy life in said cities. This specialization of life–young urban professionals in some areas, young families moving out to the suburbs, immigrants over here and rich homeowners over there–fits in with broader forces within a self-sorting society that is often aided and abetted by public policy. It also creates serious issues for tax bases, school quality, and humans’ sex lives, and feeds into questions about the welfare state and immigration policy.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that long-term solutions to American urban issues are going to need to take a serious look at regional planning, property tax apportionment, and a more fundamental re-orientation toward ideas of what exactly communities are for. (Presumably, we put down roots in them and invest in them because we want them to be vehicles for the futures of ourselves and people around us.) Of course, I also think that more people should abandon the rat race and make lives in small cities, whose merits I have plugged, for obvious reasons, in past writings: if the market is so overheated in certain major cities, it is overdue for a correction, and the best way to achieve that may not be a turn to the suburbs, but to another way of thinking entirely. But to the extent that some of our more significant modern maladies have policy solutions, this is one of the most fertile grounds that we need to explore.

To the extent that there are policy solutions, that is. This is perhaps why Ross Douthat’s latest on the Trump phenomenon resonated with me: policy alone, while necessary and helpful, cannot resolve the things ailing our busy lives or our cities or our politics today. That requires the more fundamental framing I mentioned earlier, a more total pursuit of a sensible framework to support policy goals. Without that backdrop, our arguments miss the forest for the trees. We become the blind chasers, we become “busy,” we concede too much to the forces that can just bear lives along and leave us in places we’re not sure we want to be. There are better ways.

Good Journalism, 4/26/18

26 Apr

In the third week of this feature, here’s a somewhat shorter list of interesting things to read.

So, it turns out that social media does not lead one to sink into an echo chamber where one only gets information from one or two biased sources. However, receiving information passively online, the BBC explains in a summary of recent research, contributes to “motivated reasoning,” a process by which people become more and more sure of their opinions when they see basic talking points coming from prominent figures on the “other side.” In Amor Mundi, a weekly newsletter from the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College where I found this article, curator Roger Berkowitz uses Arendt to explain why this makes things worse:

While loneliness has always been a marginal phenomenon in human life, it has, Arendt argues, moved to the center of modern existence. Cut off from religion, tradition, and custom the modern individual confronts the pain of the world alone. This is what Arendt calls metaphysical loneliness. Without some coherent narrative that lends purpose to one’s life, the reality of human suffering can be unbearable. 

Such loneliness contributes to the deep human craving for coherent fictional narratives that lend meaning to otherwise meaningless existence. It is the human need for coherent fictions that, at least in part, prepares people today to be seduced by ideological movements that give meaning to their lives.

You can subscribe to Amor Mundi, which can fill your Sunday mornings with timely and depressing reading, here.

As long as I’m blasting tech-related stuff, here is an interview with Jaron Lanier, an early architect of the internet who now thinks things have gone horribly wrong, and are in need of reform.

On a semi-related note, and in a topic that has been on my mind given my upcoming travel itinerary, here is Ross Douthat talking about California, a state that the Democratic Party has come to dominate politically. For all that dominion, though, it has only become more unequal and polarized, sent a lot of conservative migrants to other states in a Grapes of Wrath reversal, and bred a lot of Trumpish intellectuals, such as they are. It’s a fascinating place, and yours truly will be able to cast some judgment over the next week and a half.

Farewell, Sam Cook: the dean of Duluth outdoors writers is paddling off into the sunset. Sam’s writing is one of my earliest memories of local journalism, and as I graduated from high school with his son, I had the good fortune to run into him at times over the years. He will, thankfully, continue a weekly column.

I’m glad to have pulled off this feature three weeks in a row, but it will go on hiatus for a week or two before, hopefully, resuming. My next post will explain why.

A Bunch of Good Journalism, 4/11/18

11 Apr

I’ve been reading a lot of random stuff this week. Here are links to some of it.

In my dreams this might become a weekly or semi-weekly feature, though that also requires me to read and collect enough interesting things over the course of a week, and these things will need to be linkable from a blog. (My book-reading goes in fits and burst these days, as I sometimes spend days buried in print, and then lapse into weeks of nothing but articles on the screen, or in print editions of magazines.) I’ll do my best to collect a wide range of thought on timely topics, though I make no claim that they will aspire to some sort of balance, and much good writing is not necessarily timely (or always is). I will even resist the urge to take potshots at Mark Zuckerberg as part of this, even though this week’s events have teed me up there. The intent is really just to collect good, thoughtful journalism.

No, instead of any take on Facebook, I’ll direct readers to the most jarring thing to hit the presses this week: Junot Diaz’s confessional on the abuse he endured as a child, and how it left him sexually broken for years and years thereafter. It’s a searing take on how trauma can linger, and is a valuable window into human brokenness and sympathy, which can be all too rare in highly charged times. It deserves to be read a billion times more than the latest piece on why Donald Trump is destroying America/is its savior.

Sticking with the New Yorker, we come to Vinson Cunningham’s review of Ross Douthat’s new book, To Change the Church, which is a critique of the direction of the Catholic faith under Pope Francis. The review is one of the most clear-eyed takes on Catholicism in recent popular press, and engages the Church as the complicated institution that it is, instead of trying to cram a take on the church into a liberal or conservative worldview. (I’m not Catholic, but I dabble in Catholic circles more than anywhere else.) Cunningham seems to share my appreciation of Douthat, who is a master of poking holes into liberal orthodoxy and making people think, while also delivering valuable critiques to his book within a historical context. The concluding stab pairs nicely with Diaz’s piece, and points to something that turns off at least one person with some curiosity about the Church far more than any doctrinal debate ever could.

Okay, fine, I’ll find one article about Trump: David Brooks, another member of the Times‘s Endangered Conservatives Club, speaks to the failures of  Never Trumpism in his Tuesday column. I’ve defended David in the past and have him to thank for a supporting role in my drift into my current career trajectory, but have found him a frustrating columnist in the Trump Era. He’s at his best when doing pop sociology and reviewing others’ scholarly work, not when he’s trying to mount a defense of a mushy view of the American republic from his privileged throne. (He said he was going to make a better effort to understand his country post-election, but evidence of any such effort is pretty thin.) This time around, though, he’s exactly on point as to why the forces arrayed against Trump, whether on the left or conservative critics such as himself, have failed, and will continue to fail unless they change tack.

Or maybe the issue is just baked into the media. Over at The American Conservative, Telly Davidson provides a take on a dust-up over Kevin Williamson, the National Review writer who was hired by the Atlantic for a hot second before the Atlantic got cold feet over his comments on. Williamson is a firebrand who likes to unsettle people; I quoted the piece that put him on my radar when he took a conservative angle to blast the working class white people who became a focal point among the chattering classes during the 2016 election season. I’m ambivalent on all of this; my instinct is usually to appreciate a skilled writer who brings an original perspective, yet I’m also not really a fan of Williamson’s level of bombast, and while the Atlantic‘s waffling elicits an eye roll, he largely dug his own grave. But, whatever one thinks of Williamson’s current employment status, Davidson is on to something in discussing the broader media environment in the time of clickbait. It’s broad brush writing, and there are obvious exceptions, but it’s also a very fair diagnosis of an industry that deserves much of the criticism it has merited in recent years. So quit reading all that junk and stick to intellectually curious blogs.

Lest we get down on journalism, though, here’s Roger Cohen from a couple of weeks ago, writing beautifully about the importance of his craft. I make no claim to being a journalist, but it does get at why I write, and is a reminder of how a lifetime of observing can burst forth in a few moments of clarity that, with any luck, will mean something to someone, somewhere. We’re drowning in supposed journalism today, but a few pieces really do pierce through the endless news cycle and the default cynicism that seems to pervade an era. May we continue to find those pieces, whether in the Times or some local rag, and share them as widely as we can.

A New World Disorder

3 Sep

Let’s take a step back from the Syrian intervention debate for a moment here, play some pop poly sci, and explore what the ongoing crisis means for world politics. Put simply, it could well be the end of the post-Cold War Pax Americana, and a sign of a much more complex world. Of course, some people have been talking about this for a long time. The most famous is probably Fareed Zakaria, who wrote a bestselling book about it five years ago. As early as the mid-1990s, Samuel Huntington was imagining creative new ways in which people might fight each other, absent any Cold War ideological battle lines to separate each other.

The people making these arguments usually framed them against the narrative of the hegemony of liberal democracy and capitalism, made famous by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. It was a great title for grabbing people’s attention, though it also led a lot of people to misunderstand him. We’ll save that argument for some other time and say that, quite simply, things looked pretty good if you were a proponent of liberal democracy and capitalism at the end of the Cold War. The communists were done for, and authoritarians were falling across Europe, Latin America, and even in a few other places. The European Union was taking the next step, NAFTA was in the works, and the Gulf War had shown that no one could really mess with the United States military. In an increasingly interconnected world, there were no obvious alternatives. Sure, there were some angry Muslims out there who weren’t too fond of liberal modernity who might blow a few things up, and yes, democratization would have to come in bumps and lurches in many places. But it was hard to conceive of another ideology that might be applicable to the entire world. The biggest questions were over how to make all that integration happen—would it simply be economic, or political as well?—and how to deal with the people and countries that didn’t take off on the right path right away.

Fast forward to 2003 or so, and the narrative still pretty much applies. Yes, some angry Muslims blew some things up, but the U.S. pursued them into Afghanistan and knocked off their patrons and made its message pretty clear. The rest of the world pretty much had the U.S.’s back. The E.U. had itself some shiny new coins. Democracy was lurching ahead in Latin America and in Africa; only in the Middle East were things not really showing signs of moving in the “right” direction. So the U.S. went in and tried to do something about it.

Ten years later, we know that didn’t work so well. Iraq is no shining beacon of democracy in the Middle East, and if anything, the invasion simply added to the regional instability. Though it did little to truly undermine global capitalism, the financial crisis was very disruptive for the countries that had been bankrolling the march of liberal democracy. This was especially true in the troubled Eurozone, though the United States had its own set of issues, especially as the country in the lonely throne atop the world order. The failures of the Bush Era now evident, Barack Obama was elected to usher in a new foreign policy; two years after that, voters decided they didn’t much care about foreign policy when the economy was still not moving much, and in came the Tea Party—which, whatever else one might say about it, by in large has little interest in the nuances of geopolitics. The global vision seemed to be collapsing in on itself, as everyone was too busy dealing with their own crap to bother with saving other people.

A few months later, though, there was reason for hope again. Finally, the dominoes were beginning to fall in the Middle East: spontaneous, popular protests began to weaken the entrenched autocracies, the most notable being Egypt, a regional power. Killing Osama bin Laden was a nice cherry on top, too. Hey, maybe the dream wasn’t dead after all. When it became clear the popular revolt in Libya was going to need a bit of a nudge to knock off its ugly autocrat, the U.S. and its friends were happy to lend a hand. Once again, freedom was on the march.

Fast forward again, and the hopes of the liberal democrats have again gone unfulfilled. The Libya intervention effectively destabilized Mali. Egypt’s “revolution” now looks more like a series of coups coupled with huge protests, and no one has any idea what the endgame will be there. Perhaps even more significant now, though, is Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has shown he is willing to fight to the death in his own civil war. The worldwide debate over how to respond shows just how troubled the world order is:

-Existing international institutions have no real mechanism to react. There is no way to punish chemical weapons users from some sort of international, objective position up on high. This position does not exist.

-No rising power yet has the power or the interest to lead its own effort, with one—Russia—actively opposing any action. If the world intervenes, it will be the U.S. (maybe with France tagging along) or no one.

-A war-weary portion of the American public—including Rand Paul’s wing of the long-united, pro-intervention Republican Party—has no interest in geopolitical questions, and thinks the U.S. should mind its own business.

-The neoconservatives—John McCain, Lindsey Graham—on the other hand, are obsessed with geopolitics, and want the U.S. to take the lead, knock out Assad, and set the Middle East on a course to peace. Failure to do so, they believe, will embolden the likes of Russia and Iran, and let an evil dictator stay in power. The word they repeat ad nauseam is “credibility.” If the U.S. says it will act and then does not, the American reputation will be tarnished forever, they say. (Of course, they never bother to mention what happens after the U.S. asserts its credibility by lobbing a few bombs at Damascus, unless they want an all-out invasion and occupation.)

-As of this writing, is hard to know what Barack Obama thinks. Has he called for a vote on Syria—something he did not bother to do with Libya—for strictly political reasons? It makes total sense from that perspective, as it exposes the rifts in the Republicans, makes them complicit in the march to war if and when things do go wrong, and gives him an easy out if Congress somehow actually rejects his proposal.

However, I suspect Obama is genuinely conflicted on this, which may be why he’s passing the buck and actually (gasp) following the Constitution instead of attacking at will. On the one hand, he does believe most of what he said back when he gave his Nobel Prize address; good liberal that he is, he wants to believe the world can punish evildoers and those who violate international law, and he knows the U.S. is the only country that can really do that. But this is also a man who ran as someone who’d learned the lessons of Iraq: that it will be difficult not to escalate from a “surgical” first shot, that this will inevitably be seen as taking a side in the conflict, and that a rebel victory could very easily bring hardline Islamists to power, creating a far bigger regional headache than Assad ever was. Given the difficulty of the question, some dithering is understandable; the problem is that the dithering makes him look at best indecisive, and at worst a total cynic.

And so it becomes clear that the new world order is anything but the hegemony of liberal democracy. It hasn’t been a clash of civilizations, a la Huntington: there have been hints of that, and there may be future threats of that, but Huntington’s worry about “Islam’s bloody borders” was misplaced. It was the bloody interior of the Islamic world that would make it all apparent. We’re left with Alawites and Sunnis and Shias and secularists all shooting each other (with Christians as the collateral damage), all tangled up in bizarre webs of alliances. (Here is a helpful chart that makes everything clear.)

This thing shows how laughable it is to imagine an overarching narrative here. Some people might lament lost chances: if only the U.S. had stayed out of Iraq, or gotten it right, or—to take a more hard-line stance—nipped off all of these disruptive Middle Eastern revolts before they upended a stable, if autocratic, region. I don’t buy it. Autocracies never last, and the allure of “freedom” is always there, especially in such an interconnected world. The revolts would have happened, sooner or later. Likewise, the U.S.’s window of dominance is going to end sooner or later: if not because of military defeat, simple demographics make this clear enough. (I’m not saying the U.S. will fall from its spot as the foremost international superpower anytime soon; given my doubts over the stability of autocracies, I think China has far more serious issues than the U.S. does that it will have to deal with sometime down the line. I’m simply saying that U.S. power for international military influence is shrinking, and will probably continue to shrink.)

And so we’re left with our new world order, which, it turns out, is not some sort of march toward destiny (be it of liberal or a communist or a religious variety), but a mess of regimes rising and falling all over the place and dragging people into webs of intrigue worse than my high school love life. It isn’t pretty, but no one can accuse it of being boring, and as horrible as conditions may be in Syria, this is also (by historical standards) a pretty peaceful time. That might last; it might not. Further integration and democratic advance remain a real possibility, probably worth supporting when they do not require extreme exertion. (See Myanmar, for example.)

But that also might not happen, and any student of international politics must understand that, for sanity’s sake. We’re left with a diverse world full of interesting messes, and while this shouldn’t cause us to give up all hope of changing it, we do have to respect its complexity. If that makes us traitors to this America messianic mission of converting the world, then so be it. We are not slaves to the fate of humanity: we are free to carve out our own little communities of contentment and choose only the battles that we cannot avoid or that we know will not consume us. We can only control so much.

Edit: Ross Douthat has come out with a good, measured piece that wrestles with some of these themes.